“I can’t think of anything to write. Besides, nothing exciting ever happens to me.“Words that send shivers down the spine of any sixth grade English teacher who is trying to encourage his students to think exactly the opposite. Trying to convince young people that writing is talking on paper, speaking in their own voice with a pencil, communicating with each other non-verbally, is an enormous task. How can the teacher convince the students that they are important enough to write about? When I was mulling over this question in preparation for my unit I thought that perhaps if students could read the writings of individuals whom they know and admire, the students will begin to see that writing about themselves is worthwhile and important, and will help them become better writers.
I learn a lot from watching my children. I have two sons who become walking, talking, breathing statistics books every spring. They study the backs of hundreds of baseball cards and assimilate vast amounts of knowledge that they are able to spout, chapter and verse, at the drop of a fly ball. Would that they could remember algebraic functions with such ease and relish. Why one set of facts and figures and not another is the question I ask myself. As a teacher, I have often wondered what great things could be accomplished if I could inspire the same fervor when teaching parts of speech, or when reading a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Young people, and many adults, are totally fascinated with the lives of the famous. How can I capture some of this energy and direct it toward other areas of literature? This is the question that I hope to answer in my unit.
By reading excerpts from the autobiography of Dave Winfield I hope to open up an avenue of self-expression for my students. As a public school teacher, I have learned that the hardest part of the struggle to open minds is grabbing and holding the attention of students. I must do the first if I want to accomplish my goal of teaching students how to writs about themselves in an effective and satisfying manner. I want to use the universal appeal of sports personalities to get where I want to go. While the initial emphasis will be on reading autobiographies, I want to progress to teaching students how they, too, have valuable experiences that are gratifying to write about.
As I sit and think, and observe my sons and my students, I gain confidence that a unit of the type I propose will be a useful tool in getting the young people in my class to write about themselves in a way they haven’t done before. But I can’t leave it there. After my class has had a taste of the “rich and famous,” I want to move them to reading about the not so rich and famous who write powerfully about their lives, and then have my class progress to gaining the satisfaction and pleasure of writing about their own experiences. Two books I plan to use are
, by Eloise Greenfield, and
A Gathering of Days
by Joan W. Blos. Both books are marvelous examples of young people coping with experiences that students in my class will have also experienced. These books will help develop a sense of empathy that I feel will be most productive in eliciting personal writing from my students. From 1830,
A Gathering of Days
, to 1988,
in between, covers a lot of ground, but together all three works will provide valuable insights into my students’ own lives, and provide the inspiration they need to write more freely about themselves.
II Why Autobiography
The teaching of writing is an intricate endeavor. Many lessons in textbooks attempt to give students techniques for organization as well as proper form, and they attempt to offer ideas for the beginning of the task. A lesson may offer detail charts as a method of organization and give examples of using such a chart. It works well with young writers so long as they are using the book’s ideas. When it is the students’ turn to originate, then the difficulty arises. What good is the chart if the student has difficulty deciding on the initial idea? He cannot organize what he doesn’t have.
Autobiography is a natural approach to overcoming this uncomfortable situation of where ideas come from. We as teachers do similar things in the teaching of reading by having our students recognize main ideas and topic sentences, but we do much less in getting students to originate them. Leo Ruth (1987) talks about this in an interesting and informative article. He says that children must have the opportunity to share their own life experiences, to write about personal knowledge and to recognize themselves as the author if they are to develop their own thinking abilities. In the same article, Ruth makes a point that all of us teachers need to remember. Children need to see us as “a helpful collaborator, rather than as a stern evaluator.” The teacher’s efforts need to be spent during the writing, not after, in the correcting process. Ruth continues by suggesting that children need to learn to “plan ahead over a sequence of sentences rather than think just one clause at a time.” Finally Ruth tells us that students should develop a “sense of authorship” both as a writer creating meaning and as a reader creating meanings within the realm of his own life.
My own security about using more autobiography in my classroom was strengthened by an article by Roni Natov (1986). The author talks about recent autobiographical fiction for children. The selections are realistic and adhere to the truth, but shape it into a “vision that can inspire others.” These stories can help children affirm their own sense of reality by finding similarities and differences between their own lives and the lives of the stories’ protagonists. Children can begin to find their own uniqueness and separate themselves from family and society without totally and permanently disavowing either. They begin to realize more clearly that they are part of a network of people, but also unique individuals. Thus, by reading autobiographies written by extraordinary people, (in my unit, a famous sports personality), students can recognize their own individuality. Further, by reading a book such as
, students can observe how they, too, have experienced similar events, and can recognize qualities they share with characters, or qualities they have but characters don’t, and have their identity more clearly defined. Once the students understand themselves more clearly, then writing about themselves should come more easily.
What may be the most important quality about reading autobiography and about writing autobiographically is that it allows us teachers to make writing personal for our students. In her book,
The Art of Teaching Writing
, Lucy Calkins reminds us all of this critical point. We as teachers need to listen to our students and teach them to listen to themselves. By reading autobiography we help students understand “self” more clearly. They begin to value their uniqueness more highly. Hopefully we can transfer the more clearly defined sense of self into a greater sense of value for their own life experiences and have them see their own lives as worth writing about. In turn we give them a valuable tool to use to get them started writing, not just for the length of a class period, or a homework assignment, but for life. As Calkins says in her book, “we give them ownership and responsibility for their writing.” When this truly occurs, we teachers can serve as guides, and writing becomes an enjoyable experience for children.
III Why Baseball
I don’t mean to suggest that I’ve done the research, but I’d be surprised if any other sport has generated the number of books that baseball has. (18 by Yankees, alone.) Its universal appeal has taken it from the realm of the sports pages to the height of fine literature. When I read essays by Roger Angell in
New Yorker Magazine
I sense more than just simple reporting about a game. Baseball is a game that has inspired one of my favorite modern-day myths,
, by Bernard Malamud. When a respected book reviewer for “The New York Times,” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, takes a year to follow baseball from spring training to post-season play, and writes a marvelous book,
Me and DiMaggio, A Baseball Fan Goes in Search of His Gods
, surely there’s more than a game involved. Perhaps it is the fact that a respected poet writes a fascinating essay in “The New York Times Book Review” on a poem about baseball, that tells us that there is more to baseball than there immediately appears to be. Donald Hall is talking about something deeper than just the words in Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” written on June 3rd, 1888, and alive and well in June, 1988. Finally, I guess it’s spring. I have been a fan since I was the age of my students today, and I’m sure I will remain a fan forever, despite the multi-million dollar contracts, the unruly behavior of players, managers and yes, even umpires. I imagine that any sport will work for my unit, but there is only one America’s game.
Which autobiography to use? There are so many, and so as a criterion I used my own childhood, (and adulthood), preference for the New York Yankees and chose Dave Winfield’s life story. I have no intention of having students read the entire book. My purpose in using a celebrity autobiography is not for its content so much as for inspiration for my students to begin writing more freely about themselves. Therefore, by choosing excerpts from the book, I can direct my students to areas of this famous person’s life that may closely parallel their own.
There are several sections of the Winfield autobiography that I want to use as inspiration to build a succession of writing exercises. In the section titled “Family,” Winfield gives information about his background. It’s fairly basic, and there aren’t many value judgments made. The straightforwardness of the writing serves as encouragement for a young writer to open the door to his personality. The passage from the book presents a fairly ordinary childhood that should not intimidate a young reader/writer. After we read the excerpt in class, we will model our own autobiographies from it.
Another section, labeled “Fears” has Winfield talking about memories of early events in his life that left longlasting impressions on him. Arguments among siblings are usually fertile ground from which to elicit vivid descriptions from adolescents. Early in Winfield’s book there is depicted a disagreement between Dave and his brother Steve. The scene sounds like any that would occur in a family, particularly a family that has two boys fairly close in age. Sibling rivalries often escalate from insignificant words or actions to emotional tugs of war and even physical confrontation. Reading about a scene such as this will cause the students to recall similar situations in their own lives, and from there they will write about them.
Once students have had a chance to read about someone famous relating everyday occurrences in his life with fondness and a sense of importance, they will begin to look at their own experiences with respect. A danger I must avoid is having a student feel that what happens to a famous person is more important than what happens to him. A million people may not want to read a student’s journal, but the journal’s importance to him is not thereby diminished. The teacher’s objective must be to stress that fact at all times. To emphasize that autobiographical writing of “ordinary” people is valuable, I want to use the book
, by Eloise Greenfield. The story is about Doretha, a nine year old who has started “a sort of diary.” The book is divided into sections that would begin “Me, Age
.” Throughout the book the emphasis of the story is on Doretha’s reactions to some commonplace and some quite unsettling and serious situations. The reader is taken through a wide range of emotions, but always is reminded of the power of Doretha’s writing it down in her diary and how effective the diary becomes in helping her understand her situation. The book will provide excellent reading to help students understand autobiography better, and will be a wealth of material for class discussions and writing experiences for the students.
A Gathering of Days
A third source of both good reading and good inspiration for writing is Joan W. Blos’ fictionalized journal,
A Gathering of Days
. The book presents a young girl who lived in the early nineteenth century and who must cope with life in those times. However, it also presents the main character, Catherine, in universal situations that children of any time period can empathize with. Foremost of these situations is the death of her mother following the birth of her baby brother. At fourteen, Catherine’s position in the family is drastically changed, and to further complicate matters, her father decides to remarry. The book is written in journal form and almost any of the daily entries could be used as stimulation for writing. The writing can be short pieces in which, perhaps, students relate to Catherine’s relationship with her best friends. Also, the book demonstrates how valuable a journal can be over a long period of time. This is evidenced at the beginning of the book in a letter from the keeper of the journal to her great-granddaughter, also named Catherine, bequeathing the writings to her young namesake. Students today could, perhaps, do their own autobiographies imagining themselves as eighty year old great-grandparents doing what the letter suggests. What happened in their lives, imagining themselves looking back? What events would they be likely to remember? How many events would they be likely to remember at all if they had not kept a journal? I believe that the book will perform very well for my students, both as good reading and good inspiration and that is what this unit is all about.